Little Girl Lost – Cheryl Bradshaw

Lark Donovan rubbed her eyes and blinked at the shadow on the wall in the hallway. Seconds before, she swore it had moved. She leaned back on the pillow, pulled the blanket over her nose, and peered into the darkness. “Daddy?” she said. “Is it you?” The hallway hummed along to the repetitious beat of a ceiling fan in the distance, and after staring at the same spot for a while, the wall remained stationary, and Lark grew tired. Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe she hadn’t seen anything after all. Or maybe it was William Shakespaw, the family cat. “Willy?” she said. “Is it you? Here, kitty, kitty.” The cat didn’t come. At bedtime, after Lark’s parents read her a story and tucked her beneath the covers, they always closed the door behind them, even though they knew she was afraid of the dark. Once they’d gone and she was alone, she imagined things—horrible things, like sharks springing forth from the water beneath the carpet and biting off one of her toes when she dangled her foot too far over the side of the bed. The bogeyman was real. Lark was sure of it.

She’d tried convincing her mother once, but her mother had just rolled her eyes and said, “You’re being ridiculous, Lark. Monsters aren’t real. Neither are ghosts or bogeymen or any of the silly things you conjure up with your imagination. I close your door for a reason. I don’t want you growing up to be a nervous Nellie. You need to be brave.” Lark wasn’t brave, though, and most nights when her mother thought she was sleeping, she was awake, waiting for her parents to retire to the den to watch television so she could tiptoe through the darkness and crack her bedroom door open again. She was careful never to open it too much, just enough to let in a hint of a glow from the nightlight her mother kept plugged in down the hall. When daybreak came, Lark was careful to remember to get out of bed and close the door again before her mother came in to wake her. So far, her plan had been a success.

In the five months she’d been doing it, she’d never been caught. Deciding the movement on the wall had been nothing more than a figment of her overactive imagination Lark snuggled back inside her blankets. She gave her stuffed unicorn a squeeze and began drifting off to sleep again when she heard her father’s raised voice. She wasn’t able to make out what he was saying, and she wondered whom he was talking to so late at night. Her mother was out of town. They were all alone in the house. Weren’t they? For a time, Lark remained still, listening. All was quiet at first, and then she heard another man’s voice. It was breathy and deep, far different than her father’s. The man’s voice sounded like it had come from outside.

Lark scooted halfway down her bed until she reached the window. She brushed the curtain to the side and peeked out. Lark’s father was standing by the pool in the back yard with his arms folded. His face looked the way it always did when Lark was about to be scolded. Another man stood next to him. A man Lark hadn’t seen before. The man’s pointer finger was stabbing at the air, and his face was all scrunched up. Lark’s father said something to the man, and then he swished a hand through the air and shook his head. The gesture seemed to irritate the man, and he reached out, shoving Lark’s father in the chest. Lark’s father shoved him back, and then the man dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a gun.

Lark’s father stepped back and he raised his hands in front of him. Although Lark couldn’t hear his words, she read his lips when he said, “Please, don’t.” It was the first time Lark had ever seen a gun in real life. A couple of years earlier, she’d watched a man on television shoot at a bear—twice. Lark had gasped when she saw it, prompting her mother to enter the room, grab the remote control, and change the channel. Curious about the interaction between the man and the bear, Lark had said, “Mommy, why did the man on TV shoot at the bear? The bear was only trying to eat the man’s sandwich.” “Never you mind,” her mother had said. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Staring at her father now, Lark wished she were older. She wished she could do something, even though she didn’t know what could be done.

She thought about hopping off her bed, running outside, and shouting, “Hey! Stop it! Stop being mean to my daddy!” But before she could do anything, the man aimed the gun at her father and fired. Her father pressed his hands over his chest. He looked at the blood trickling down his shirt and stumbled backward, collapsing into the pool. Lark pressed her hands to her lips and screamed. The man jerked his head back. He saw Lark, and his eyes widened. He tucked the gun beneath his jacket and walked toward her. Lark knew she should back away from the window, but her body wouldn’t cooperate. It had gone numb. The man reached the window, pressed his face against the glass, and tapped a finger against the windowpane.

“Hello there,” he said. “What’s your name?” Stricken with fear, Lark thought of her mother and what her mother would say if she were there now, watching the events unfold. She closed her eyes and pretended she was somewhere else, somewhere safe, and the sound of her mother’s voice thundered through her mind like a lion’s roar. “Be brave, Lark! RUN!” I woke to find my pillow saturated with sweat. I pressed my hands against my face, exhaled a long breath of air, and sat up, staring into the darkness. It was empty and black like a bottomless wormhole, and part of me wanted nothing more than to crawl inside and stay forever. Ever since childhood, my dreams had been a stewed blend of fact and fiction. In college, I’d been given the nickname “psychic priestess” because I had an uncanny way of knowing when something was about to happen before it did. Most nights, my dreams were random and trivial. They didn’t matter.

They didn’t mean anything. Other nights, they did, and a veil lifted, allowing me to see things I didn’t always understand or know how to interpret. Tonight’s dream had been more vivid than any I’d had in a long time. A young girl was running barefoot down a sidewalk at night. She brushed past me like I was invisible and kept on going. Based on the girl’s size, she was young, around seven years old, I guessed. Her long straight hair was so blond it was almost white, and several strands were dirty like it hadn’t been washed in days. She also had a quarter-sized tear in the knee of the pajamas she was wearing. I reached my hand out to the girl when she passed, trying to catch a glimpse of her face, but she changed course, slipping through my fingers. Still, we’d touched for a brief moment, and I absorbed her emotions like they were my own.

I felt the fevered rapidness of her heart thumping inside her chest. I felt her staggered breaths. She was scared, but not just scared—terrified. Of what? Or whom? And why was she running? The girl reached the end of the street and evaporated into the night. Seconds later, another set of footsteps thundered from behind. I glanced over my shoulder and watched a man charge after the girl. I waited for him to pass, and then I followed him. Before I could catch up, my dream was cut short when a gruff male voice called out to me. “Gigi, you in there?” My furry protector leapt off the bed and ran to the door, raising the alarm while standing guard. For a moment, I didn’t move.

Something about the dream I’d just had disturbed me, and I didn’t know what bothered me more—my unwelcome visitor or the fact a flashlight had switched on outside. He was out there, checking things out. I didn’t like it. “Come on, now,” he said. “Your Jeep’s parked outside. I know you can hear me. It’s colder than a polar bear’s toenails out here. Let me in, all right?” “Gigi’s still sleeping,” I said. “Come back another time, like a respectable hour maybe.” “I apologize for disturbing you so early in the morning.

You know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.” I did know. I just didn’t want to care. When I remained in bed, refusing to get up, he rapped on the door a few times, muttered in frustration, and jiggled the door handle. The door creaked open, and he poked his head in. Luka took one look at him and went from guard dog to a pile of goo in seconds, jumping up and down until he reached out to pet him. “You don’t lock your door?” he said. “Why would I?” I replied. “I’m all alone out here. There’s no one around for miles.

” “Still, you should always lock it. You never know who could be lurkin’ around.” “You’re lurking around. Should I be worried?” He arced the flashlight in my direction, and his face went red. “You wanna put a robe on or something so we can talk?” I assessed my current attire, a short, strappy, black cotton nightie and knee-high wool socks. On the top end I was a bit bare, but I still offered more coverage than a teenage girl at the beach. I didn’t see a problem. “I don’t own a robe.” He pointed at the bottom of the bed. “How ‘bout you cover yourself up with one of those blankets, then?” I sighed, yanked a blanket off the pile, and draped it over me.

“Why are you here, Harvey?” He ignored the question, opting to survey my Airstream from back to front instead. “Wow. So, this is how you’re livin’ now. It’s, ahh … well, it’s …” “Nice,” I said. “Nice and quiet.” “Quiet. Yeah, I imagine it would be. Too quiet, if you ask me.” I hadn’t asked him. “That’s the point of being out here,” I said.

“I want to be alone.” “You achieved it. You’re alone all right, and your hair, well, it sure is colorful.” I reached above my head and pressed on the light, illuminating the room. “I drive to the nearest town every week or two to grab some groceries and do my washing. You want to know something? When I’m there, all I can think about is how fast I can get back out here again.” He frowned. “Guess I was hoping you’d make your way back to civilization at some stage. You’ve been out here … what, a year and a half now?” “One year, nine months, and three days.” “Long time.

” I shrugged. “I guess so.” I’d known Harvey since I was too young to remember. On Sunday nights, he’d come to the house with a couple other guys, and they’d play cards with my father. Harvey and my father were detectives in San Luis Obispo until the night my dad was blindsided by a pickup truck on his way home. The truck had crashed into my father’s car with such force it had split his car in half. The impact crushed him, and he died well before the ambulance arrived. The driver of the truck fled the scene and was never captured. It was the first time my life changed forever, and back then, I thought nothing would ever exceed the pain I’d felt. I was wrong.

So wrong. Harvey rubbed his fingers along his chin and said, “I need you to come home. It’s time.” “I’m retired now. Besides, I have no interest in coming back.” “Maybe not. I still need you to, okay?” “You need me to, or you want me to? There’s a difference. Are you talking to me as the chief of police or as my stepdad? “Both.” He walked to the table, picked up a book set I had sitting on the bench, and sat down, folding his arms in front of him. “Careful with that,” I said.

“It may not look like it, but it’s rare, worth about fifteen thousand.” He eyed the title on the green cloth cover with interest. “Sense and Sensibility. Never heard of it. Where did you get it?” “A friend gave it to me. Someone I knew many years ago. I’d done him a favor, and he bought it for me because he knew it was my favorite.” “Must have been some favor.” It was. He placed the book set on the table like it was made of thin, delicate glass.

“This camping life you have going … it isn’t a life. It’s something else. You know it’s true.” “If you’re about to say it’s me running away instead of facing my demons, don’t bother. I’ve heard it multiple times already.” He nodded and stared at me for a moment. “How long are you going to keep beating yourself up over what happened?” Forever. And even then, it wouldn’t be long enough. “I lost everything, Harvey,” I said. “My marriage, my job, my … my …” I let the unfinished sentence hang in limbo without saying the one word I couldn’t bring myself to deliver.

“You didn’t lose your job,” he said. “You left it. What happened was awful. We all agree. But you can’t lock yourself away forever. It isn’t healthy.” I tossed the damp pillow to one side and leaned against the wall. “You know why I can’t come back. Cambria is a small town. Too small.

Everyone talks. Half the town pities me, and the other half judges me. I don’t need it. I’m better off out here, away from it all.” “Since when do you care about what everyone else thinks?” Since everyone else was right. I deserved their judgment. It was their teary looks of anguish I couldn’t stomach. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here,” I said. “You’re like a daughter to me. You always have been.

I worry about you. Your mother does too. I love you. We both do.” I knew. I also knew the lump in my throat had tripled since he’d arrived. I missed adult conversation. Especially his. And I missed them. All of them.

“You’re here about a case, aren’t you? There’s something you want me to do, right?” He tapped a thumb on the table. “In a manner of speaking, yes. Just hear me out. Okay? Then you can make a decision.” “Even if I wanted to help, I’m not cut out for detective work anymore.” “Aww, hell. I suppose I should just get on with it. The truth is I’m here on behalf of your sister.” I hadn’t spoken with my sister Phoebe since I’d headed out of town, which I assumed had everything to do with our conversation the day I left. It hadn’t gone well and ended with her offering me a steaming heap of unsolicited advice and calling me selfish over my plans to live off the grid.

“If Phoebe wants something from me, she can come out here and ask me herself,” I said. “We’re both adults.” “She can’t. Not right now.” “Why not?” He cracked his knuckles—a nervous behavior he demonstrated whenever he was about to deliver unpleasant news, like telling me my house had burned down last night. “Did my house burn down last night?” I asked. “Your … what? No. Your house is fine. Why would you say something like—” “Never mind. What is it, then?” “It’s your niece, Lark.

” I closed my eyes. Lark was seven years old. Lark had blond hair. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t her. No. I wouldn’t believe it. “Georgiana, you heard what I just said, right?” he asked. Without opening my eyes, I nodded. “I did.

Go on.” “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he said. “I really am. Your brother-in-law is dead. And Lark is missing.”

.

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