We all run into people each day. Their faces remain with us sometimes for a few seconds, and sometimes longer. Yet, sometimes these run ins with strangers mean something more.
By: Deborah Reed
To date, Deborah Reed has had over thirty short stories, magazine articles or essays published, two of which are Pushcart Prize nominees. She currently resides in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her daughter, grandson, two dogs and two cats.
Click here for a PDF of Red Haired Girl
Red Haired Girl
By: Deborah Reed
The temperature that day was also memorable, unbearably humid, topping 107 with a blistering 112 comfort index. The two trips it took to transfer my groceries from car to apartment left me dripping in sweat, literally gasping for air in the oppressive heat. I’d forgotten something, of course—I always do—and this time it was the bread for the next day’s lunch. After supper, when it was relatively cooler, I decided to walk across the street to the Mobile station. And that’s when I saw the red haired girl for the first time.
She was second in line at the counter, equidistant between a well groomed woman in her late twenties and an older man in faded overalls. Her appearance is what first caught my attention, that and the fact that such a young child was standing perfectly still. She was dirty almost to the point of being grimy, and barefoot, despite the NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE sign prominently displayed on the front door. She wore nothing but a long, tattered T-shirt. Surely, I thought to myself, she’s wearing a pair of shorts under that shirt. The lady in front of her was taking her sweet time picking out various lottery tickets, requesting one then shaking her head—no, no that one might be better. All of us behind her, all but the red haired girl, were shifting impatiently. She alone stood perfectly still, eyes facing forward, not even blinking. Which one is she with? I remember thinking, the lottery ticket lady or the overall man? Both were clean, well dressed in their individual ways, while the red haired girl looked like a motherless waif with her uncombed, stringy hair, bare feet and grimy shirt. The more I studied her, the stranger her appearance seemed. She was oblivious to my scrutiny, however, staring ahead blankly, as if the rest of us did not exist. The mystery was solved when the women in front of her finished her transaction and the red haired girl woodenly followed her out the door, still silent, still aloof. No one but me paid her the slightest attention.
My life was a mess at that time, and I quickly forgot about the whole incident. I was having car problems, for one thing. One breakdown after another leaving me with precious little money to spend on anything but mechanic bills. Even more distressing was the fact that my only child could not seem to get pregnant. My whole world at that time consisted of two problems–I was either waiting for the next strange noise which heralded yet another mechanical breakdown or a telephone call from a teary child to tell me that once again I would not be a grandmother. That summer was horrendous, one disaster after another. It finally ended, however, and on the day the first cold front came in I saw the red haired girl again.
She was, as before, second in line when I entered the store to pay for my gas. The well groomed lady and the overalled man were absent. In front of the red haired girl was a bearded older gentleman; behind her, a tall, tired looking woman in nurse’s scrubs. Incredibly, despite the cool weather, she was still barefoot, dressed in the same grubby T-shirt. She, like the first time I saw her, was staring blankly in front of her, eyes fixed on nothing, still as a statue. I put her age at about six, much too young to come to the store alone. So who was she with this time? Was the bearded man her grandfather perhaps?
Apparently so, because when he left the store, she followed several paces behind, staring straight ahead, body erect. I glanced around at the other customers. Surely I wasn’t the only one that found this situation odd. Yet no one but me seemed to have noticed, and the phone call I received when I got home pushed all thoughts of the red haired girl from my mind.
My daughter, after years of trying, was finally pregnant. In seven months, I, like most of my friends, would be a grandmother. This happy thought got me through the fall, which turned out to be even more disastrous than the summer had been. Health problems, rather than mechanical ones, seemed to be the theme throughout the months of September and October. I was stricken with a particularly virulent case of shingles in my optic nerve, leaving me in constant pain, embarrassed by the drooping on the left side of my face, and waking up at night in a cold sweat with the terrifying fear that the disease would leave me blind. For six weeks I was the most miserable of creatures, unable to eat, sleep, or work comfortably. I eventually recovered, however, and enjoyed a week of relative peace before I was assaulted by yet another virus. I missed five days of work as I was unwilling to stray more than ten feet from my bathroom. Life seemed to be getting bleaker and bleaker and only daydreams of my first grandchild kept me going.
On the first day of November I saw the red haired girl for the third time.
She wasn’t in line this time, but rather wandering around the store. Except for the fact that her arms were not stretched out in front of her, she looked like those zombies you see on late night TV. Her eyes were glazed, her gait stiff and shuffling. Incredibly, although there was a steady rain falling, she was still barefoot, still wearing nothing but the T-shirt. It was early morning and the store was crowded with customers getting gas, coffee, doughnuts. The well dressed woman and the bearded man were not among them. So who was she with this time? I positioned myself near the door, pretending to study a rack of sunglasses, and waited for her to leave. It was a good five minutes before she did, behind a young man about college age. Curiouser and curiouser, I remember thinking, and once again forgot about her in the events that followed.
My daughter was not having an uneventful pregnancy. Although the baby was thriving, his existence was perilous. The phone was once again my enemy. Every other week or so I would receive a call with various alarming reports. There was spotting or cramping or dangerously high blood pressure or the risk of toxemia. The doctors had warned us to prepare for the fact that the pregnancy might not go full term, that the chances of delivering a healthy baby, or any baby at all-were slim. A dark cloud seemed to follow me throughout that winter and the last thing I thought about was the mystery of the red haired girl.
Until I saw her again in March.
I was returning from my daughter’s house, exhausted from coping with a bedridden, almost hysterical mother-to-be, when I spied her out of the corner of my eye as I pulled into my complex. She wasn’t in the Mobile station this time, but was standing outside, near the bank of newspapers. I caught only a quick glimpse of her as she opened the door to enter the store.
For the fourth time in a row, she was still barefoot, still in the same tattered T-shirt. Coincidence can only be stretched so far, I thought to myself. Something is very wrong here. My blood ran cold as I realized that somehow, some way, the red haired girl was the harbinger of doom, my own personal banshee. No one but me had seen her, that much was obvious, and the reason for this was because she existed for no one but me.
I exited my car in a mad rush, groping blindly for my house key as I ran to my apartment. I had one thought and one thought only. I had to leave town. If I saw the red haired girl again, my grandchild would die. It all made sense now. My car problems last summer had not been simply the result of an older car reaching a crisis point, but had been brought about by the sight of the red haired girl. My illnesses, more severe than any I’d ever had before, occurred after I saw her the second time. My daughter’s pregnancy had progressed smoothly until the third sighting. Every time I saw the red haired girl my life got worse. I had to get away from her.
I dashed around the apartment like a madwoman, throwing clothes into suitcases, gathering my credit cards and check book, pausing only long enough to leave a breathless message on my boss’s answering machine. I would not return until the baby was born. My avoiding the red haired girl was his only chance of survival. I had to get away, far away. A freezing drizzle was falling as I lugged my two heavy suitcases to the car.
A heavy bank of dark clouds smudged the horizon, obscuring what little was left of the day’s light. The drizzle had been a precursor to the main part of the storm, which I encountered when I had driven barely ten miles. The windshield wipers were useless against the heavy onslaught of sleet and rain, and I spent the better part of an hour perched nervously on the edge of the seat, straining to keep sight of the road in what little light the headlights provided. A howling wind buffeted my small car, making it almost impossible to remain in one lane. This was by far the worst storm I had ever driven in, and it was all the red haired girl’s fault. I knew she was trying to keep me from leaving town, that she wanted me to see her one more time so that my grandchild would die. Putting as many miles as possible between us was my only goal and I would endure any storm, no matter how severe, to accomplish it.
After fifty miles, the storm abated. Completely. The clouds simply disappeared, revealing a star-studded sky and a full moon, and the rain ceased abruptly, as if a giant hand had turned a faucet off. A feeling of sublime peace washed over me. I knew that I had outrun, outsmarted the red haired girl. I had done it. I was out of her jurisdiction now; she no longer had control over me or my life. I drove another hundred miles before I saw the Howard Johnson, a well-lit oasis in the midst of the dark stretch of highway. It was, I knew, to be my haven for the next few weeks, my hiding place until the baby was born.
The night was soft and still, the quiet broken only by the trill of a mockingbird as I pulled into a parking space and removed my suitcases from the backseat. The peaceful feeling remained as I walked into the garishly lit lobby and requested a room on the ground floor. All was right with my world now, the Mobile station far away and no longer posing a threat. Despite the heavy suitcases, my step was light as I followed the directions the clerk had given to my room at the far end of the complex. I was safe now, and, more importantly, so was my grandson.
I located my room and breathed a sigh of relief as I retrieved the key from my pocket. The horrendous drive was over; I was seconds away from being warm and comfortable. All would be smooth sailing from here on; in a few short weeks I would be holding a new baby in my arms. I inserted the key and pushed the door open.
The red haired girl was sitting on the bed.