The Pale Girl

They say the world ended late on a spring Thursday afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to slant its way downwards and the sky was shading towards pink and orange. It happened quietly, like the moment between one breath and the next: one moment things were as they always were, and then nearly every person on earth went to lie down and die. People call it the Great Quiet, because it was – the world pulled the blankets on and turned out the lights and that was it.

My dad was one of them. That’s what Mom told us, on a winter Friday, when everything was gray and cold and wet outside. She said that the Pale Girl came for him, and that was when he had to go to sleep. Her mouth trembled a little when she said that, and she rubbed at her eyes with one hand, as if troubled by a headache or some deep terrible exhaustion.

Then she kissed both of us: me (twelve, wide-eyed, confused) and my brother (sixteen, sullen, already angry at things I didn’t know yet), and she went to bed.

+++

“Listen,” my brother said to me the next morning, as he built the fire with short, sharp, angry strokes. He always did everything like it was an exclamation, stiff, abrupt, like his joints pained him too much to move. “You see anyone who’s not me, you run, okay? I don’t care where you are, you get away. You come find me. Got that?”

I nodded because I was twelve and afraid – my brother wouldn’t even let me go see Mom that morning; he stood in the way until I gave up, then dragged me away. I could feel his hand shaking. He wouldn’t look at me even after he got the fire going and stuck a pan of water over it; he always had his shoulders bent no matter what, like it took everything in him just to stay upright. Maybe it did. I never asked him how he knew who the Pale Girl was, because when I had, his face went all red and blotchy and he started yelling – not even anything in particular, just angry inarticulate things. I ran and hid until the sun was low and heavy in the sky, and when I came back finally, he wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

He made sure I went everywhere with him, though. He’d send me off to gather things, and I was expected to come running if he signaled – we had a system that we’d developed with Mom: long steady whistles to inform everyone where you were, short sharp ones to summon, and just to scream if we were in trouble.

I’ve never screamed in my life. Mom never did, and neither did my brother. I don’t know if that means they never saw the Pale Girl or if she was just a story that was passed down amongst the first-generation survivors (like Mom, and like Ms. Lily Anderson, who used to live next door to us until one day she packed up all her belongings and left. My brother said she’d just gone crazy, but Mom said she’d heard from a radio that there were other people alive out there somewhere, and she meant to go find them, and she’d come back for us someday). Maybe they just called her that because she was part of the Great Quiet.

If she didn’t actually try to attack you, like the wild dogs that lurk by the skeletal remains of cities and stores, was she really such a bad thing? You saw her and you went to sleep. That was it. In my head I pictured her as a girl my age, with braids like mine, only with white-blonde hair like Mom’s and dressed all in gray and white. She sat beside a sleeping person and sang lullabyes for them like Mom sang for us – used to sing for us, I guess, now …

“Don’t even bother screaming,” my brother said, when he handed me my gruel. “You just run and find me.”

+++

We’ve lived in the same house all my life, me and my brother – not Mom, though, not any longer. It’s two storeys tall and falling apart in places. My brother fixed things wherever he could, but he could only ever patch things, really – we looked at how the wood and bricks were laid in to make the walls of the house, but we couldn’t figure out how to duplicate it ourselves. Mom said that once upon a time, before the Great Quiet, people used to know tricks like this; they were the ones who built our house. She said the neighborhood used to be full of people her age, my brother’s age, my age. “That’s why we moved here, because your father and I wanted you two to grow up in a decent neighborhood.”

I tried to picture that once, looking out at the neighborhood from my bedroom window. I stared hard at the building next door, and the houses beyond that, and tried to imagine seeing other people out there – not Mom with her pale pinched sad face or my brother with his sullen red angry one, or even Ms. Lily Anderson with her wide dark unfocused eyes and ragged hair. It was hard; I couldn’t actually think of what these people would look like. When I tried to picture it, I just saw dozens of people who looked like my family over and over, but with different colors. Me with red hair, my brother with black hair, Mom with brown hair, things like that. I tried to picture other men who might look like the picture of Dad that Mom kept on the table by her bed, or like older versions of my brother, with beards and gray hair. It was weird, but I thought maybe I could grow to like it – everything was so quiet, especially once Ms. Lily Anderson left us on our own. Sometimes you could hear the wind crying, or wild dogs baying far away, but most of the time, it was just very quiet and very still.

Once the Great Quiet fell upon the world, Mom said, it never really left.

We don’t leave the house very often, either. My brother was the one who took care of Mom – I saw him dragging the sheet-wrapped body down the hall, and then he yelled at me to get into my room and close the door. I did, but then I watched him go from my window. He took her into the back, where the trees begin, and then an hour later he came back out again with mud on his hands and his knees. I don’t know if he tried to bury her – the ground in the forest is rocky and hard – but maybe he covered her up. There’s no point in trying to attract the attention of anything hungry. If they stuck around, then I’d never get to go outside.

I moved away from the window before he could look up and see me. I wonder if maybe he knew anyway. He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

+++

On a summer Monday, I was out with my brother and we were looking for food. Some plants had to be boiled and boiled and boiled to be edible, and others were okay as they were, but they didn’t do us any good if they were still growing in the ground and we were going hungry. Mom had told us about “grocery stores” before, places where there was all the food you could ever want, ready and waiting for people to come and take it – I’d even seen one once, the one time we ventured as far as the city looking for things to eat or to bring back to the house. It had been a huge skeleton of a building, with the ground pockmarked and the shelves still mostly full – dogs and maybe other things had torn apart certain sections, but left others completely alone. Everything in it was too old to take back with us, though, and it felt like such a waste.

I wonder what sort of world it was, that had grocery stroes full of easy food and noisy people.

I was digging up roots when my brother came for me. He crashed noisily through the underbrush and didn’t even bother to be quiet; he yelled my name once and then he was upon me. He grabbed my arm and then we were running, the roots I’d managed to dig up left behind. I didn’t even have the breath to ask him what was going on – he was running as fast he could, which meant it took everything I had to just keep up. He never looked back, not at me and not at whatever he was running from, and his hand on my arm was tight enough to hurt.

We didn’t stop, not even when our house drew into sight, not until we’d thundered up the stairs and the door was slammed behind us, my brother’s large back slamming back hard against the wood. I fell onto my knees as soon as we were no longer moving, but he wouldn’t let go of my arm, so I just dangled there and tried to breathe around the horrible tight knot in my chest. It took me a long time to realize that my brother was muttering: low and angry and afraid, and when he let go of me, it was only so he could go to the windows and yank the curtains more firmly closed. He walked like someone who was afraid. I’ve seen him do it before, and Mom too, that sort of hunched-up too-careful shuffle, not really looking at anything. I stayed where I was, slumped on the floor.

Then he turned and looked at me. I’ve never seen my brother look so frightened in his entire life.

“Why?” he asked. “Why me, why now? Mom was old! Dad was older! Why me?! I don’t want to – I can’t, I’m not–” He covered his face with his hands.

I licked my lips. “What did she look like?”

“Why does it fucking matter what she looked like?!” he roared. He smashed his fist into the wall as he did, hard enough to leave a tremendous dent. Plaster cracked and left spiderweb patterns. “She’s real. She’s out there.” He shuddered and looked at the closed, curtained window. “She’s waiting.”

I started to say his name, but he stormed past me; I heard him tromping up the stairs and slamming the door as he went. My chest still hurt from running, but I pulled myself slowly to my feet and tottered over to the window. Holding my breath, I moved the curtain aside just enough to peek out.

The neighborhood looked the same as it always did. Everything was still and silent. I waited and waited, but finally gave up and moved away. I thought about knocking at my brother’s door – it seemed like a bad idea, if he was afraid of falling asleep, to go into his bedroom – but I could still hear him tromping around, and every now and then a loud thud like he was throwing things. I decided it’d be better to keep my distance, so I stayed in the kitchen and searched for what we had to eat. It wasn’t very much – that’s why we’d gone out in the first place- – but there was maybe enough for dinner. Maybe. If my brother stayed sulking in his room for the rest of the night, there’d be enough for me, at least.

But an hour later, he did come downstairs. He looked tired and worn and white in the face – not unlike Mom did, on that last winter Friday. He looked so tired, with dark rings under his eyes I knew weren’t there previously. We looked at each other for a long time: I saw his throat move like he wanted to say something, but in the end, he just crossed over and put his arms around me. I think it might have been the first time he’d hugged me in all my life. It was awkward and uncomfortable: he was too tall and I was too bony, and I don’t think either of us liked it very much, but he held me for over a minute. I counted.

When he pulled away, he looked at me for another very long time before he spoke. “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“You know there’s not gonna be anyone who’ll come for you.”

Again, I nodded.

“No matter where you run and hide, she’ll find you eventually. She knows where we are, now.”

A third time.

He drew in a deep shaky breath; it seemed to make his entire body rock with the force of it. “I’m going to sleep now,” he said. “So just – don’t do anything stupid. Okay?”

“Good night,” I said.

His face twisted. I think he wanted to hit me at that moment, but he was too tired to do anything about it. He let go of me and he turned and walked away. I followed him, as quietly as I could, and watched him go up the stairs. He walked like he was weighed down by something very heavy; I wondered how much rest he’d be able to get, if he was that burdened now. He didn’t close his bedroom door behind him, so I could hear the thump of his body hitting the mattress.

Then everything went silent. I don’t know how long I waited; I didn’t really know what I was waiting for. It never came, though, whatever it was, so I went back to the kitchen and began to make myself dinner.

+++

The next morning I went to my brother’s room. He lay on his back with his hands crossed over his chest. The position looked like such an unnatural one to sleep in, and I wondered if he’d done it on purpose. He should be moved, I thought, the same way he’d moved Mom months ago, but when I grabbed his legs and tugged, he was so heavy that I could barely budge him. Dragging him down the stairs and into the forest exhausted me just to think about, so I covered his face and body with his blanket instead and closed the door behind me when I left.

We – I – still had nothing to eat in the house. I’d eaten the last of our supplies for dinner.

I put on my shoes and went outside.

It was raining faintly, more of a mist than anything else. It left a damp film on my skin and hair as I made my way through the tangled mess of our yard and towards the forest. My breath was the loudest thing in the world next to the crunching of my feet through dead grass. I went back to the place where I’d been digging the day before, before my brother had come tearing past and dragged me with him. The ground was still torn up in places, pale roots exposed to the air. I knelt and began to dig with my fingers. The rain helped – it made the ground wetter and softer, so it parted more easily for my fingers.

I don’t know how long I dug. Hours, maybe – a long time, at least. My shirt became the pouch where I carried things, and I piled it high with every root and branch I could find that I recognized. With this, I thought, I could live for a long time; I wouldn’t have to go outside unless I wanted to. The thought didn’t bother me – my brother had hated staying inside a lot more than I did. I liked to sit and look outside, but not actually be outside – even if imagining the area full of people (full of my family and me) was really strange.

As I made my way back to my house, holding out the pouch of my shirt, I heard a crow calling from somewhere behind me. It was the first voice I’d heard in weeks that hadn’t been my brother’s or my own. Part of me wanted to look back and see if I could find it, some small dark black shape against all the deep vibrant greens of the treetops, but my feet wouldn’t stop moving. All my life, both Mom and my brother had warned me not to pay attention to voices that weren’t theirs; we all had to be careful. I wondered if the Pale Girl traveled the same we did – did she just walk from city to city, searching out signs of life? I wondered if she talked to people when they saw her, or if she could even manage anything before they ran away, like my brother had. Had she come from the city? Did she find Ms. Lily Anderson and the people she’d gone to find? Was she lonely, being who she was?

I went inside and closed the door.

+++

On a fall Tuesday, I woke up and knew someone else was in the house. I don’t know how I knew – it was one of those things that just creeps into your awareness, and suddenly the knowledge is in you, simple as breathing. Maybe that doesn’t really make sense. I don’t know. I got out of bed and walked downstairs, and I didn’t bother to be quiet. She knew I was there–that was why she was even here in the first place.

She sat at the kitchen table. When Mom was alive, we would eat there at least once a day, and she’d always left an empty space (for Dad, though she’d never admit it), and after she went to sleep, my brother and I had abandoned the practice and used it as a place to simply hold the things we brought in from outside. Now, though, all the dust and debris had been cleared away, and there was a girl sitting there.

Her hair was just like mine, long and ratty and black, left loose around her skinny shoulders. She had a sharp angled look to her, like the wild dog packs that I still dreamed about. I could see her long skinny nose in profile, and her hands were folded on the table. I thought about running away; I know that’s what I should have done, if how my brother and my mom had talked about her was any indication. Instead, I went and I sat in the chair across from her, trying to mimic her posture as best I could, with my hands folded on the table and my legs hooked at the ankles and my shoulders bent up in a hunch.

“Hello,” I said.

The Pale Girl looked up. The movement made the long hair hiding her face stir and part. Her skin was as white as her hair was black, and there were smudges around her mouth and under her round, round eyes, which were bigger than anything else in her thin face. Each one was the size of my balled fist, perfectly round and dark: there were no whites to them, but they shone a little, in the light of early morning. Looking at her, I wondered when was the last time she slept. She looked more exhausted than Mom had, more than my brother had – more than anyone had. Up close, I saw that her hands were shaking. Her mouth opened and moved, but no sound came out.

I reached out and put one of my hands on hers. They had no temperature to them; they weren’t warm or cool, and they felt like sandpaper. She looked at me with those huge eyes. Maybe she was surprised – it was hard to tell, with her face like that.

“You’re beautiful,” I said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

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