Bewildering Stories

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by Susan Kingsolver and Eric S. Brown

The dry red earth whipped about in a fury as the cold wind put an end to their yard work. Carol pulled her jacket tighter about her body and looked over at Meagan. The little dog barked loudly at something unseen in the bushes at the garden's edge.

Two years ago, Carol had lost her only daughter in those trees. The day had been the same as this one, cold wind with the sun half buried in a sea of dark gray clouds. Katie had been helping her cover her plants to protect them from the coming frost. The phone rang and called Carol away. She left Katie unattended. At the time, she had thought nothing of it. Katie was five years old and often allowed to play outside on her own but those few minutes Carol was gone changed her life forever.

It had been Mark on the phone, he said he’d be late again. He'd been putting in a lot of extra hours at the office trying to get the raise which seemed would never come. When Carol went back outside, Katie was gone. The only sign of her was her red scarf hanging amid those same bushes.

Carol had called out to her and searched the backyard over but Katie was not to be found. Desperate and frantic, she called Matt and the police. The police showed up quickly and done all they could do. The whole neighborhood had gotten involved and the tale of the missing child even got the media's attention. Yet it was all in vain.

As time wore on, Carol suffered a breakdown, blaming herself for Katie's disappearance. Matt couldn't handle it all. After strained weeks and months of trying to reach Carol and show her that he still loved her, he packed his bags and left. Carol spent all her time in the garden as if nothing had happened, working in her plants, waiting for Katie to come home.

As Meagan barked at the bushes, Carol's heart surged with the hope that Katie had finally came home. Her eyes began to water, warm tears sliding down her cheeks. Then Meagan darted into the bushes. Suddenly, Carol's hope turned to fear. "Meagan!" she yelled at the top of lungs and ran after the little dog. Carol couldn't bear to lose her too. Meagan was all she had now.

The vivid green leaves of the bushes took on a sinister glow in the dying rays of the setting sun as Carol plunged into them. The world seemed to swirl and change around her. No longer was she in her backyard, but in vast field that stretched as far as the eye could see, brown grass under a blazing sun.

"Mom?" a tiny voice called from behind her. She turned to see Katie standing with a man, tall and handsome, who held the girl's little hand embraced in his own. Carol blinked and stared in disbelief. She started to run to her daughter and sweep her up into her arms but something held her in place.

"Hello, Carol," the man said in a voice like the soft movement of the waves.

"Katie, come here this instant!" Carol snapped holding her ground.

Katie looked up at the man then looked sadly back at her mother. "I can't."

"Yes you can, Katie. Come here." Carol ordered more forcefully.

The man smiled and asked, "Do you know who I am Carol?"

"No and I don't fucking care! I want my daughter back now or I’ll ..."

"You'll what?"

Katie started to cry; deep sobs shaking her tiny body. "Go home, Mom. My place is with him now."

The words cut Carol like a razor. "Katie... How can you say that?"

"We made a deal," the man answered," Katie is a good girl. She keeps her promises."

"But... But Katie, why?" Carol shrieked.

"He said you were dying Mom, cancer, but if I came with him he could save you."

"Oh, sweetie. I never had cancer and I never will. Come home with me."

"You never had it because it was my will," the man said. "I can do many things, Carol." He began to glow, a white light about his form shining as if he were an angel. "When I came for you Carol, Katie got in the way. She pleaded for your life so I took her instead. Children's souls are so much stronger but Katie is almost spent now. She may fade if I don't release her soon, be it back into your world or the next. I can put her back in your world, Carol, if you are willing to stay with me in her place. All you have to do is say yes and she can live again."

Carol nodded, "Yes."

The bushes parted once more as Meagan came bounding out of them with a dead rabbit in her jaws. In her wake, stumbled out a child, pale and thin in tattered clothes. Her eyes were wet with tears. Her last memory was of going into the bushes to get some wild strawberries for her mother as a surprise. She was tired, cold, and alone. She yelled for her mother and somewhere in the depths of Hell, Baal laughed loudly at her plight.

Copyright © 2002 by Susan Kingsolver & Eric S. Brown