The Girl with Her Doll

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I scramble towards the ladder, tripping over our game table, red and black pieces scattering across the metal floor. There is a rolled up ladder on the side of the wall, waiting to be let down as a way over. Howard leans haphazardly over the edge of the steel barrier, pointing down below.

On the ground outside is a girl. She's covered in mud from head to toe. It is to the point where I cannot tell the color of her shirt or if she is even wearing clothes. It looks as if she might not be, the way the mud has plastered every inch of her. I can only tell she's a girl because of her form, and because she carries a ragged looking doll that is just as dirty as she is.

Seeing her, I feel the goosebumps spread up my arms. Her puppy-like cries are only intensifying.

"Jaelyn, you know our orders," Howard whispers, and I hear the click of his holster as he unbuckles the strap holding his gun in.

"Is she infected?" I ask, looking for her eyes. You can't see her skin under all the mud; so there's no way to tell if she's jaundiced. She's not limping; she's not even moving. In the dim light, I can't see her eyes, though.

"It doesn't matter," Howard says.

"She might be hurt," I mutter.

"Doesn't matter."

"What if she's not infected?"

"Doesn't matter," he says, and as I grab the straps of the ladder, "I'm not taking that sort of risk."

But I'm still holding the ladder, and he doesn't have good enough aim to hit her from this height. I know Howard well enough to know that he won't risk missing, in case she bolts.  As I watch the girl she begins to sway where she stands, her crying only becoming louder and more hysterical. If I strain I can almost hear words, low whispers in between the sobs.

"Please," she's saying, eyes still closed, "Please. Help."

I move to unhook the ladder, tossing it over the edge.

"What are you doing?" Howard hisses, grabbing my arm, but I'm already halfway over the side.

I don't know, I want to tell him. I don't have a clue, but there's just something in her voice, something in the way she sways. I don't understand it.

What I do know is that I can't leave her out there, and there's no way on Earth I could shoot her.

Howard is still hissing at me as I crawl down the ladder, standing still for a moment on the ground so that my eyes can adjust. I only have a few minutes before he brings more guards. They won't shoot me, not again, but they will climb down and get me. If I'm going to help her, it needs to be fast.

Her eyes are open now, and she has them locked on me. She wears a paisley dress, clinging to her legs, glued by all the mud. Her doll trembles in her hand, as she watches me walk towards her, both hands outstretched to show that I have no weapons in them. The gun's still on my back, though.

"It's okay," I whisper. The girl just stares at me without blinking. Each step towards her tells me that I might have been wrong, that she might actually be infected. Maybe it's the fact that the shaking moves up her body in jerking motions, making her head twitch to the side. Maybe it is the bloodshot eyes, bright green irises and black, limitless pupils.

By the time I'm standing directly in front of her, within arm's reach, she is shaking uncontrollably, staring at me, blinking now, but it's uneven and awkward, jagged.

"It's okay," I say, as if talking to a baby. She doesn't move. "Are you hurt? Are you sick?" She nods her head, just barely. I hear the sounds of more than one voice behind me, more than one ladder being lowered. I'm too afraid to turn around, though, and her eyes have me locked where I stand.

"I won't let them hurt you," I tell the girl, quiet enough that I know they can't hear me. "Are you infected?"

She doesn't do anything but whimper.

"Please, you have to tell me, or I can't help you."

She looks behind me, at something else, and then back at me. Her eyes seem to flit between me and someone else, and she begins to shake again. Her mouth opens, cracks forming on the dried mud on her lips.

"Help," she whispers, taking a step back. Her voice shakes with fear; it shows in the way her eyebrows sink down and her shoulders shake. "Help me, Jaelyn."

How she knows my name is a mystery. But something switches on in my head, and I take a lunge at her, throwing my arms around her as the footsteps rush up behind me. I feel something sharp sink into my arm combined with the dull impact on the back of my head, and then, I'm out.

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