at Length


—Melissa Yancy

An excerpt from “Stray,” by Melissa Yancy

It was midnight, October 16th, when she saw the girl crying. Lily was having coffee alone after seeing a re-release of Touch of Evil. The child was standing precariously close to the street, the Saturday evening traffic cutting close by. She seemed simply to have materialized—Lily hadn’t seen the child emerge out of any stores or wander down the street. She was just suddenly there, bawling, her fists rubbing at her eyes. The girl didn’t call out or look around for her mother. She just rubbed her eyes so hard that Lily thought she might push them right out of their sockets.

When Lily saw the girl, she instantly remembered the swan, remembered her own hesitancy, and the swift reactions of the other passers-by. So she did what she thought a right-minded adult should do. She walked over to the child.

“Are you lost?” Lily said, but the girl did not react, did not remove those burrowing fists from her eyes.

“Where’s your mother?” she asked, but the child still did not respond. “Your daddy?” she added self-consciously, thinking it old-fashioned and offensive to assume the child was out only with her mother.

Lily tried to pry one of the girl’s arms away from her face, but it wouldn’t budge; she was unnaturally strong. This was obviously something the child did often, this rubbing—she certainly had practice. 

A stream of snot dangled halfway down to the girl’s tennis shoes. Lily could see scabs lining her forearms. 

“I’m trying to help you,” Lily said but the snot and sobs continued. The girl’s chest heaved with each chop of air. “If you won’t talk to me, I can’t help you.” Lily believed that children should be reasoned with, not persuaded by toys and trickery. But Lily had never spent much time with children.

“Please,” she said.

Lily peeked her head into the closest store, a place that sold primarily glass bongs and appropriate accessories—bundles of incense, black light posters and mushroom shaped candles.

“Did anyone lose a girl?” Lily called out, although the shop was empty. At the back, she could see light creeping out from underneath a curtain that covered a doorway; she could hear muffled voices, too, but she certainly wasn’t going to investigate. They could be doing anything back there, and if she saw something illegal, the people might have to kill her. That sort of thing happened to witnesses, and she hoped never to be witness to anything.

“Stray” originally appeared in its entirety in the print version of At Length, which no longer exists. To make sure you don’t miss future novellas from At Length, please sign up for our RSS feed or email list.