The Girl and the Mist

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The sun rose like a glittering medallion over Dark Hollow, a rural Pennsylvania community tucked in between the Delaware River and the first ridge of the Appalachian foothills.

On Dark Hollow Road, a two-lane blacktop turning to gravel along the lower stretch, a solitary truck en route to the local landfill hauled a load of garbage past sleepy farms and acres of wild forest.

The truck driver, Ralph Barlow, liked to get an early start on the day.

Before those school buses take up the whole damn road.

The garbage mountain loomed on the horizon. It was the one blight on this rural paradise; but from a distance its white gull-infested peak looked like snow. Stretching out before it, the mirrored surface of the lake appeared on fire and the surrounding fields of tall reeds swayed gently in the morning breeze.

The picturesque view reminded Barlow when this was a vacation spot, before the county sold the land to a multi-state waste conglomerate posing as an environmentally friendly recycling center.

Recycle my ass, Barlow groused as the fetid stench found his nose. It all goes in the same damn hole.

As grateful as he was to have a good union job with a pension, he knew the garbage dump destroyed what had once been a beautiful landscape.

Contaminated the water. Killed the wildlife.

He had spent many summers here as a boy, fishing with his father, swimming in the lake. Now the cabins and piers that edged the shore were reduced to rot.

"Friggin' shame," he mumbled, downshifting as he made the sharp turn onto the steeply pitched lane leading to the dump's private road.

He saw it first as a flash of bright pink in his left side view mirror; a flock of squawking gulls exploded from the field, setting his nerves on edge.

Then a teenage girl, barely taller than the reeds, appeared on the side of the road. The truck chuffed to a stop.

Her slim figure filled his side view mirror. The girl appeared dazed, her face dirty, and her pink gown soaked and muddy as if she had just waded out of the lake. She stopped when she reached the side of the truck.

He leaned across the cab and opened the passenger door with a grunt. "You okay? You need help?"

The girl said nothing. After a moment's hesitation, she hiked up her long skirt, hopped into the cab, and closed the door.

"You been in an accident?" Guessing from her appearance she hadn't been taking a swim, although he didn't see a vehicle anywhere, no skid marks on the road.

She didn't answer.

He assumed she was in shock. "You want me to drive you into town?"

She stared straight ahead, as silent and still as a statue.

"I'm gonna drive you into town. I just gotta turn around at the end of this road, okay?"

The girl said nothing. The truck started down the hill, gaining speed on the steep grade.

Barlow shot her a sidelong glance. "How'd you end up all the way out here? You fall in the lake or something?"

He noticed her hands, bluish white, clutching tightly at the skirt of her gown.

"Are ya cold? I have a jacket behind the seat." He reached for it, taking his eyes off the road for a moment.

With a shriek the girl lunged at him, her hands flailing toward his face with ragged, mud-encrusted fingernails.

"Jesus Christ." He shouted. The truck lurched from side to side as she clawed at his face and neck. Barlow tried steering with one arm while fighting her off with the other, but the feral girl persisted in the attack, sinking her teeth into his bare forearm, drawing blood.

Ralph Barlow screamed. The vehicle flew off the side of the road, hanging in the air with tires spinning for a moment before crashing into the wooded gulch below. The din of metal smashing against trees scattered the gulls in all directions as the truck rolled then came to a rest upside down in a muddy stream.

*  *  *

Adam Gares' 1968 Mustang made a glossy streak through the low mist that had crept in suddenly that morning. His daughter, seventeen-year-old Hannah, wearing a fresh school uniform, her face partially hidden by her lank brown hair, slumped low in the passenger seat. Her slim frame bounced with each bump of the road as she tried (humorously Adam thought) to balance of mug of luke-warm coffee as if her life depended on it.

He was about to make a joke, but he stopped himself. The last thing he wanted to do was enflame her already foul mood. But the silence on their drive to school was starting to unnerve him.

"Are you excited about the new term?" His voice sounded forced and theatrical, something he'd often criticized his acting students for.

Hannah answered with an annoyed sigh. "No. Should I be?"

"All those new things to learn? All those wonderful possibilities?" He made a sudden swerve to avoid a pothole. A splash of coffee just missed the cuff of her new white blouse.

"Sorry about that," he said, shooting her a smile and hoping to get one in return.

She scowled and looked out the window. She noticed low wisps of mist threading through the trees and inching toward the road. Soon the car was surrounded by a dense white cloud.

Adam slowed the car to a crawl and said, "What I wouldn't give to be a student again."

"That's you," Hannah said, instantly regretting her rudeness. She loved her dad, but she found his attempts at cheerfulness so early in the morning annoying. Plus, this was the first day of school and although it wasn't something she felt comfortable admitting (not even to him), she was anxious.

The thick mist surrounding the car like a cloudy dream had set them both on edge, although neither one would say it. He dealt with his nervousness by trying to fill the void with friendly banter. She was the opposite.

But I can still meet him halfway, she thought.

She was about to bridge the gap with a banal remark when up ahead a flashing red light cut through the whiteness of the mist like the pulse of an elevated heartbeat.

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